Denis Baylis Reflects on the trip to Spain
In the steps of The Spanish Gypsy
A summary of the trip to Andalusia in Spain by members of the George Eliot Fellowship 6th-12th April 2016
All our departure procedures went well. Arriving at Malaga Airport we found our coach driver for the trip, Raoul, giving us a warm welcome. A notice to say that we were The George Eliot Fellowship on Tour, was displayed on the front of the coach. The distinctive red colour of the coach and the name Perez were useful to us in identifying where to find it as we came away from visits, and Raoul was always there promptly for us. I had almost no Spanish and he had little English, but we managed to communicate well.
Driving out we had our first taste of the Andalusian landscape, craggy hills, neat rows of olive trees; thin white clouds clung to the mountain tops, difficult to separate from the fragments of snow that remained there. Snow had been much less, Raoul told us, than in previous years, and the winter less cold. We had our first stop at a servicios which had a good cafeteria. The service stations were uniformly good, and Raoul seemed to know the best of them.
The Hotel Abades Recogidas in Granada was in a quiet street lined with orange trees well laden with fruit. It was well placed, close to the Cathedral area, where there were many cafés and restaurants in the surrounding squares. As in the other two hotels to come, there were street maps freely available, and of course invaluable. We were able to access the rooms immediately.
Hotel room view in Granada Orange trees in Granada
The group had the afternoon and evening free. We were happy to explore separately, eager to find out things for ourselves. I had recommended a visit to the Cartuja, a hill top monastery on the fringe of the city, on the opposite side to the Alhambra, where there is a fabulously decorated church (Felipe, our guide, was later to tell me that we could not have done better, as a preparation for the Alhambra visit). We were told that it would either be a taxi ride or a 45 minute walk. My brother and I, and Sue and John Cutts (who never want to miss anything) decided to walk. Uphill a good part of the way, but really interesting for getting the feel of the city and seeing the handsome, and, if not handsome characterful, buildings. It took us about half an hour. The church was at the top of a flight of steps; you enter through a cloister with a fountain and shaded by trees, with a great sense of peace. Inside it really was stunning, rich gold ceilings and altarpieces, twisted marble columns, plasterwork of incredible detail, anticipating what we would see in the Alhambra, beautiful inlaid pavements.
We thought of having a taxi for the return, but decided to walk back, stopping off at a café for refreshments. A chance to get a feel for the lifestyle, explore the back streets, and it was downhill. We were able to single out where we wanted to come out to later, after a rest. We found somewhere promising in a square close to the Cathedral. Again with Sue and John. A first sampling of the fish soup, followed by a platter of pieces of fish, fritos mixtos. Difficult to do justice to it. My brother Tony had the same and we could easily have shared one, with some left over! Succulent lamb chops for Sue and John. A lesson for the future.
A good bed, really sound sleep, and a very satisfying breakfast: eggs bacon, ham and cheese, fruit and cereals, excellent coffee, the full buffet – it was to prove the same in the other two hotels.
After a bit of a delay, caused by other coaches clogging the parking space at the hotel entrance, we managed to get going – a problem for Raoul. As a result we were late at the Alhambra, but our guide Felipe when we met him was quite relaxed, since we were still in time for our 9.30 entrance. It was a fresh, gloriously sunny, morning. Felipe got us in quickly, past the queues and crowds that were beginning to build up. To come early like this was to avoid overcrowding, the ideal time.
What to say about the Alhambra? It just exceeds your expectations – is there anything more beautiful, its hilltop situation with the mountains in the background? Above all I remember the subtle colours, glowing in the tiles, the textures; the beautiful writing, quotations from the Koran mostly, and the reflections, so light filled and airy, water everywhere, from the fountains and the channels. Full of spring flowers at this time of year. Felipe was the ideal guide, knowing about and loving every inch of the Alhambra; he used the Whispers, so that with the ear pieces we could pick up every word, even when we were separated some distance from him, We had a café and bookshop stop at the Alhambra, and he had then arranged for Raoul to pick us up to take us on for a walking tour of the Albaicín.
Our guide, Felipe, and (right) some of the group in one of the Alhambra courtyards
Viv declaims Shakespeare in the extraordinary accoustic wonder of the Romanesque arena. The amazing confection of pattern, design, geometry and beauty of the Muslim inspired interiors of the Alhambra.
One of the beautiful water features, such a feature of the Alhambra. Views over the surrounding countryside.
The Abaicín, The old Moorish quarter is so picturesque, cobbled streets, often with decorated patterns, whitewashed houses, the streets narrow, opening out from time to time into squares, terraces with fantastic views opening out over the whole city, the Alhambra on an opposite hillside. In the past it had been a poor area, but now Felipe tells us largely ‘gentrified’, the houses fetching high prices. We bought fruit at the market and from there he led us down past shops aimed at tourists, so that we were quickly back at the Cathedral where the tour would end. I asked him to recommend a good tapas bar and he offered to take us to one, where he was going himself. As it was crowded, most of the group dispersed elsewhere. Four of us found a table and Felipe ordered beer, and to our surprise dishes of paella, rice and seafood, came free with the beer.
The Arabic quarter in Granada, now largely tourists shops. Wax from the many candles in Easter proecessions
We said goodbye to Felipe – it is difficult to imagine a better guide – and did the tour of the Cathedral, and, when it opened at 4 pm, the Capilla Real, the burial chapel of the Catholic monarchs who had reconquered Granada from the Moors. After that we went into a neighbouring square where in a café Felipe had also recommended we sampled the chocolate con churros, freshly made doughnuts served with thick drinking chocolate, which is in fact the traditional andalus breakfast. It did not take us long to demolish a huge plate of them.
Back to the hotel then for a rest. At 7.30, following our schedule, a minibus arrived to take us to the Flamenco show, with a young hostess to look after us. We understood why we needed a smaller vehicle: it went back up the narrow streets of the Albaicín, where our own coach had not ventured, and then another hilly road to Sacromonte, the gipsy quarter where in a restaurant carved into the rocks, there was a stage at one end for the show. It was an indifferent meal, with sangria (I did not mind since we had done so well with the churros), but when the show began it was just wonderful, every aspect of it, the guitarist, the two male singers, and three women, one male, dancers. They were clearly so dedicated, Flamenco a way of life for them – it was not something dumbed down for tourists. Just unforgettable. As on the way to the caves we had wonderful views of the Alhambra floodlit and the lights of the city below. The driver richly deserved the round of applause we gave him, the way he cheerfully negotiated the narrow streets. What a day it had proved to be!
Two of the flamenco dancers. Their performance was wonderful. The group before the meal arrived.
This was the day we were not sure what it would bring, as we set out for Bedmar, the name George Eliot had selected for the town where she had set the action of her narrative poem. Felipe had talked about it with Raoul and was intrigued to know why we wanted to go there, just a scruffy village! We took the road towards Jaen, a very good motorway, as most of the roads are, moving to lesser side roads. Raoul following his satnav was completely in control. At last a sign for Bedmar came up, and we saw it ahead of us quite dramatically spread out on rising ground at the foot of a hill. You wonder if George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes actually got there. To some extent it met the description she gives, a ruined castle at the highest point of the village, a church tower. But it was clearly something much smaller in scale than the ‘Bedmar’ of her poem. She had used the name and had in mind a much more impressive castle, and a town with a large central plaza – we found nothing like this when we got off the coach and began to explore.
Bedmar from the ruined castle above the town. The party - minus the photographer - in Bedmar.
But it was exciting, steep narrow streets, whitewashed shabby houses, just a couple of cafés, one or two shops. We hardly saw a soul, a few older people, curious to see us there. Everything compressed together, inhospitable terrain. Virtually a deserted village. What did the people here live on you wondered – no sign of a school or young families. The only sign of life in most of it was the barking dogs. Some of us made it to the ruined castle. Connie Fulmer and Margaret Barfield were really excited, photographing everything; I saw Connie sitting on steps on the approaches to the castle, defeated by the climb, but clearly elated to have got that far. We were amused to see the word BEDMAR picked out in stone on a hillside opposite – an imitation of the famous Hollywood sign. In the poem the hero Don Sylva takes a journey through mountain passes to Jaen, where he will find a priest who will come back with him to Bedmar to bless his marriage to Fedalma, the heroine. I looked at the local countryside trying to find this but there were only low hills. `I guess that George Eliot might have had in mind the great Despeñaperros Pass to the north of here.
Clearly, then, not the Bedmar George Eliot describes, but she had chosen the name. She must have seen it, at least from a distance. We all agreed we would not have missed the experience.
We stopped off at a cafeteria and servicios on the way to Córdoba for lunch. There was a phone call from the Hotel Macia Alfaros wanting to know what time would arrive and offered to have a vehicle waiting for us to carry the luggage for us, a service at no extra charge, We were glad to take advantage of this, although when we get there in proved to be only a short distance from the square where Raoul dropped us.
That evening Connie gave us a talk on her research on The Spanish Gypsy; she is going to publish something about it. I was very interested in this since Brenda McKay and I had led a reading group on it, Connie had lots of ideas that excited me, and later I could not get to sleep for thinking about them, We all went out together to find somewhere to eat. We aimed for the Plaza de la Corredera a traffic free central square, a former bullring, which the guidebook suggested had lots of restaurants and cafés. There were lots of young people there, since Córdoba is a leading university town; such a contrast to Bedmar. We only found one restaurant to meet our purposes, and it was not bad – the main point was that we managed to do something all together.
After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and left the luggage to be brought to the coach later in the hotel buggy, Our guide Maria called for us at the appointed time and was delightful. She led us through the ancient Jewish quarter, just beautiful, patios with flowers and fountains, a fascinating network of lanes. An exquisite little Synagogue. When we got to the great Mosque the crowds were beginning to build up and Maria set up the Whispers for us; again this was invaluable. To move from the orange grove of the outer court to find yourself in the Mosque, a forest of pillars, is one of the great experiences of travel. The striped arches and pillars extended on every side, the area had been added to by every Moorish king. When the Christians took over they ripped out the middle and put a cathedral there, when you have got over the shock of this you begin to appreciate the mixture of two styles – the wooden choir stalls are a beautiful feature of the Christian part.
The amazing interior of part of Cordoba cathedral. Lynda, recalling Dame Fripp in Knebley, holds the boar in Cordoba!
In the 1520s the Catholic church placed their gothic styled cathedral in the middle of the Muslim mosque. It is a fascinating culture shock to go from one to the other.
Cordoba had Roman invaders. Some of this is original, most is reconstructed. Meanwhile, we tourists are the invaders.
We didn’t want to leave, but lunch called. I asked Maria to recommend somewhere for lunch, and she pointed the way to a tapas restaurant which proved to be a winner. I had fried fish on a bed of ratatouille. Afterwards Tony and I walked down to the river, saw the Roman bridge and then visited the Moorish-style gardens of the alcázar, the former royal palace. They are exquisite, easily the equal of the Generalife. We then walked through the streets of cafés full of people enjoying the afternoon sun; the temperature was 24 degrees. I realised it was Saturday afternoon.
The Sevilla Gran Lar Hotel, matched the others in its comfort, and it was well placed to reach the Barrio Santo Cruz, the edge of the old city, where we were to spend a good deal of our time. We began the evening there with a talk from Brenda McKay on the history of the Jews in Spain. We were lucky to have two first-class scholars with us. And then a good-sized group of us explored to find a good restaurant and sat outside for a meal.
We had the morning free to enjoy Seville, and we all did different things. I went to the Museo de Bellas Artes and enjoyed the pictures, especially the artist Zurbáran. We were all at the Giralda tower at the appointed time waiting for our guide, no sign of her. Our place to meet had been changed from the hotel to the Giralda but the message had not through to her! But she did manage to get to us ten minutes later. She did not have the advantage of Whispers but managed but did a good job. It was wonderful to see the Cathedral and have a long time there, and for her to open up for us the pleasures of the Barrio Santa Cruz. The high point of the Cathedral was the great wooden altarpiece, framing scenes from the life of Jesus, richly coated with gold brought back from the Indies, beautifully lit within the great cage of a wrought-iron grille. Christopher Columbus had set out from here to discover the Americas and we saw his lavish tomb. After she left us most of us went to the alcázar as she had recommended. Tony and I at this stage were feeling the pace catch up with us, and just walked through the courtyards to sit in the gardens, have tea and look at the peacocks.
Later some of us returned to Santa Cruz and found a really good tapas restaurant, and shared dishes, getting into the local habits.
Inside one of the royal palaces at Seville, close to the cathedral, shown here.
Our last full day and the visit to Ronda. We left at 8.30 for the long drive. The first stage of it was rather desolate moorland, not yielding much vegetation. As we got nearer it changed, craggy hills, and rows of olive trees on every available site. When we got to Ronda bus station for the appointed time, it was raining, quite chilly, and no sign of Mr Moises, who was due to meet us; he turned up, ten minutes late. Quite a character; we enjoyed his chatter, and he was clearly in love with the place. It all looked unpromising at first until he took us to the bullring. We were able to get into the ring – no bulls present! We did walk into the the pens where they are held before the fight. One of the oldest and most venerated in Spain; Orson Welles was often there, and Ernest Heminway wrote about it. Then we were led to the edge of the great gorge. Nothing prepares you for the depth of this, the word spectacular is hardly adequate. And the great bridge that has been created to span it. Moises took us across, and on the other side took us into the gardens of what seemed to be a Catholic holiday home overlooking the gorge on that side.
The bull ring at Ronda, seen in the rain. Orson Wells and Hemingway were keen visitors. The gorge is staggering!
We had a bit of time to wander round, and he recommended us to a restaurant that had the best tapas of the whole week, oxtail, and loin of pork cooked in sherry were a couple of the dishes we tried. It was all very welcome for we were thoroughly chilled at this point. Then he took us back to the bus station and stayed with us until we left at 4.00 pm, well beyond the two hours he had been booked for. He had more than made up for the lapse of the morning.
Back in Seville we returned to the Barrio Santa Cruz and a different tapas restaurant in the evening, a bit regretful that it was the last tine.
We checked out of the hotel at 6.30 am. They gave us a bag of provisions in place of breakfast, but no hot drinks. Raoul made a stop a bit later on so that we could get these. I organized a collection for him and everyone was very appreciative – as they were of me. Check in at the airport went smoothly, and it was great to have Justin driving up in the Harry Shaw coach just as we came out of Birmingham Airport.
Everyone agreed it was the best trip we had done. Something different, amazing and unforgettable every day. It was a lovely group and we want to have a reunion – with tapas and perhaps a bit of flamenco – before too long.
With special thanks to Ian Pearson (Harry Shaw) and Melina and her team in Spain.
And on behalf of the group, and the GEF, our sincere thanks to Denis for organising it all.
Published on 16 January 2018